Born Lizzie Douglas on June 3, 1897, in Algiers, LA ( died August 6, 1973); married: Will Weldon (a.k.a. Casey Bill), circa 1920s; Joe McCoy, 1929-1934; Earnest Lawlars (a.k.a. Little Son Joe), 1939.
For nearly three decades, Memphis Minnie was one of the most influential blues artists in the United States. From the early 1920s until she retired in the mid-1950s, she released more than 180 songs, in addition to those released after her death in 1973. Minnie's songwriting and performances thrived in a genre dominated by men. Unlike most female blues singers of the time, Minnie also wrote her own songs and played guitar. She cemented her place in blues history with such classics as "Bumble Bee," "Hoodoo Lady," and "I Want Something for You." Her repertoire included country blues, urban blues, the Melrose sound, Chicago blues, and postwar blues.
Born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana, Memphis Minnie was the eldest of Abe and Gertrude Wells Douglas' 13 children. Throughout her childhood, her family always called her "Kid." When she was seven years old, the Douglas family moved to Wall, Mississippi, just south of Memphis. The following year, she received her first guitar for Christmas. She learned to play both the guitar and banjo and performed under the name Kid Douglas.
In 1910, at the age of 13, she ran away from home to live on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Throughout her teenage years, she would periodically return to her family's farm when she ran out of money. The majority of the time, she played and sang on street corners. Her sidewalk performances eventually led to a tour of the South with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Still performing under the name Kid Douglas, she returned to Memphis and became embroiled in the Beale Street blues scene. At the time, women were highly valued-along with whiskey and cocaine-and Beale Street was one of the first places in the country where women could perform in public. In order to survive financially, most of the female performers on Beale Street were also prostitutes, and Minnie was no exception. She received $12 for her services-an outrageous fee for the time.
Beyond the buzz she created as a performer, she also developed a reputation as a woman who could take care of herself. "Any men fool with her, she'd go for them right away," blues guitarist/vocalist Johnny Shines told Paul and Beth Garon in Woman With Guitar. "She didn't take no foolishness off them. Guitar, pocket-knife, pistol, anything she got her hands on, she'd use it; y'know Memphis Minnie used to be a hell-cat."
During the 1920s, she reportedly married Will Weldon, also known as Casey Bill. However, some historians claim the two didn't meet until their first recording sessions together in 1935 and never married. If she did marry Weldon, she had left him within the decade, and married guitarist Kansas Joe McCoy in 1929. Minnie and McCoy often performed together and were discovered by a talent scout from Columbia Records that same year. They went to New York City for their first recording sessions, and it was then that she changed her name to Memphis Minnie.
McCoy and Minnie released the single "When the Levee Breaks" backed with "That Will Be Alright," but McCoy performed all the vocals. Two months later, they released "Frisco Town" and "Going Back to Texas." Minnie sang alone on "Frisco Town" and sang a duet with McCoy on "Going Back to Texas."
In 1930, Minnie released one of her favorite songs "Bumble Bee," which led to a recording contract with the Vocalion label. Later that year, she and McCoy released "I'm Talking About You" on Vocalion. The couple continued to produce records for Vocalion for two more years, then left the label and decided to move to Chicago. It didn't take long before Minnie and McCoy had become a part of the city's blues scene, and they had introduced country blues into an urban environment.
Divorce Expanded Musical Horizons
McCoy and Minnie recorded songs together and on their own for Decca Records until they divorced in 1934. According to several reports, McCoy's increasing jealousy of Minnie's fame and success caused the breakup. The two-part single "You Got To Move (You Ain't Got To Move)" was the last record issued by the couple.
Back on her own, Minnie began to experiment with different styles and sounds. She recorded four sides for the Bluebird label in 1935 under the name Texas Tessie. They included "Good Mornin'," "You Wrecked My Happy Home," "I'm Waiting on You," and "Keep on Goin'." In August of that year, she returned to the Vocalion label to record two songs in tribute to boxing champion Joe Louis: "He's in the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing" and "Joe Louis Strut." Columbia later released "He's in the Ring" on the collection The Great Depression: American Music in the '30s in 1994.
In October of 1935, Minnie recorded with Casey Bill Weldon for the first time on "When the Sun Goes Down, Part 2" and Hustlin' Woman Blues." It was about this time that Minnie had teamed up with manager Lester Melrose, the single most powerful and influential executive in the blues industry during the 1930s and 1940s. By the end of the 1930s, Minnie had recorded nearly 20 sides for Decca Records and eight sides for the Bluebird label. In 1939, she returned to the Vocalion label. She had also met and married her new musical partner, guitarist Earnest Lawlars, also known as Little Son Joe.
Minnie and Little Son Joe also began to release material on Okeh Records in the 1940s. Their earliest recordings together included "Nothin' in Ramblin'" and "Me and My Chauffeur Blues." The couple continued to record together throughout the decade. In 1952, Minnie recorded a session for the legendary Chess label, when it was just two months old. Singles from the session included "Broken Heart" and a re-recording of "Me and My Chauffeur Blues." The following year, she released her last commercial recording after 24 years in blues music, "Kissing in the Dark" and "World of Trouble" on the JOB label.
Within the next few years, Minnie's health began to fail. She retired from her music career and returned to Memphis. She performed one last time at a memorial for her friend, blues artist Big Bill Broozny in 1958. Periodically, she would appear on Memphis radio stations to encourage younger blues musicians. As the Garons wrote in Woman with Guitar, "She never laid her guitar down, until she could literally no longer pick it up." In 1960, Minnie suffered from a stroke and was bound to a wheelchair. The following year, Little Son Joe passed away. The trauma provoked Minnie to have a second stroke.
Illness Forced Retirement
By the mid-1960s Minnie had entered the Jell Nursing Home and she could no longer survive on her social security income. The news of her plight began to spread, and magazines such as Living Bluesand Blues Unlimited appealed to their readers for assistance. Many fans quickly sent money for her care, and several musicians held benefits to help her. On August 6, 1973, Memphis Minnie died of a stroke in the nursing home. In true blues fashion, she was buried in an unmarked grave at the New Hope Cemetery in Memphis.
In 1980, Memphis Minnie was one of the first 20 artists inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her work was featured on several blues compilations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Compilations of her own work also continued to surface, including I Ain't No Bad Girl in 1989 and Queen of the Blues in 1997.
by Sonya Shelton
Memphis Minnie's Career
Began performing on the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, 1910; signed recording contract with Columbia Records, 1929; released more than 180 songs on various labels until her retirement in 1953, including Columbia Records, Vocalion, Decca, Bluebird, Okeh, and Checker.
- Selected discography
- "When the Levee Breaks"/"That Will Be Alright," Columbia, 1929.
- "Frisco Town"/"Going Back to Texas," Columbia, 1929.
- "Bumble Bee," Columbia, 1930.
- "Stinging Snake Blues," Vocalion, 1934.
- "You Got to Move (You Ain't Got to Move)," Decca Records, 1934.
- "He's in the Ring (Doing That Same Old Thing)," Vocalion, 1935.
- "Joe Louis Strut," Vocalion, 1935.
- "When the Sun Goes Down, Part 2," Bluebird, 1935.
- "Hustlin' Woman Blues," Bluebird, 1935.
- "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," Okeh Records, 1941; re-released, Chess Records, 1952.
- "In My Girlish Days," Okeh Records, 1941.
- "Looking the World Over," Okeh Records, 1941.
- "Broken Heart," Chess Records, 1952.
- "Kissing in the Dark"/"World of Trouble," JOB, 1953.
- I Ain't No Bad Girl , Portrait/CBS Records, 1989.
- Queen of the Blues , Sony Music, 1997.
- Garon, Paul and Beth, Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues , Da Capo Press, New York, 1992.
- American Heritage , September 1994.
- Down Beat , May 1995; March 1998.
- High Fidelity , April 1989.
- http://www.blueflamecare.com/Memphis_Minnie.html (September 23, 1998).
- http://www.memphisguide.com/music2/blues/bluesartists/minnie.html (September 23, 1998).